Travels with Friends
My friends Brett and Hongmai from SF visited me for 2 weeks! It was great to spend time traveling and relaxing with good friends. Good traveling companions are hard to come by :-)
We went to the Summer Palace (颐和园) in Beijing, which was really really cold and windy, but towards the end of our visit we found some more sheltered areas that were quite pleasant.
The best sightseeing that I've done in China was our trip to the Great Wall. The site closest to Beijing, at Badaling (八达岭), is completely rebuilt and very touristy. So rather than do that, we went for a 9-kilometer hike on an unreconstructed section, from Jinshanling (金山岭) to Simatai (司马台) :-) We had to get up before dawn and ride in the back of a van for 3 and a half hours, but it was completely worth it! There were very few tourists there, and the others in our small tour group were really cool. We started in a small village and had to hike for 30 minutes through the mountains just to get to the wall. Some of the villagers hiked with us on the wall for a few hours, making small-talk with us in broken English and Chinese before demanding that we buy souvenirs. While I didn't appreciate their extortion, at least they worked hard for it and weren't as obnoxious as they could have been.
It was awesome to get out of the pollution and crowds of the city, and get some exercise in a beautiful setting. The Wall is built on the ridge of a mountain range in the middle of nowhere, which is logical for keeping people out, but I didn't really realize it until I got there and had to hike up and down and up and down and up... That said, I really enjoyed how strenuous and dangerous it was. This section hasn't been maintained in modern times, and I don't think that ease of passage was their top design parameter. There were sections with 18 inch tall stairs, which were only 4 inches deep! The railing-part of the wall had broken away in many sections, and the pavement was almost always uneven. Being on the top of a mountain ridge, the views were amazing! I can only imagine how much more beautiful it would be when all the plants are in bloom!
The next day, we took an overnight train to Datong (大同), a dreary town of around 1 million. While the town was uninspiring, we went to two nearby sites that were quite fun. The first was the Buddhist Caves (云冈石窟). The caves are carved into a rock face and filled with statues. The caves were built around 1500 years ago, but many of them are very well preserved -- even the coloring is intact. But the most fun was one cave that we could actually go inside. It wasn't the best preserved, but it was fun to climb around, and the morning light diffused inside the cave was beautifully soft.
The second site we visited at Datong was the Hanging Monastery (悬空寺). The monastery is built into the side of a cliff. I can't imagine that it was very practical, but it was fun to walk around, especially because we were the only ones there. In such a populated country, it was a real treat to explore a tourist site by ourselves :-)
We took another sleeper train from Datong to Xi'an (西安). This time we were in soft sleeper class, which was (comparatively) really nice -- we had an enclosed compartment that we shared with only one other person. I think we would have been very grumpy if we were in hard sleeper for this 18-hour ride!
Xi'an is home to the famed Terra-cotta Warriors, which we duly visited. Unfortunately it was a bit of a let-down, especially after the awesomeness of the Great Wall and our pleasant experiences in Datong. However, the city of Xi'an was a lot of fun! It was really warm out, even at night so we ate a delicious dinner outdoors in the Muslim Quarter and wandered around the city.
After Xi'an, I went back to Beijing to work while Brett and Hongmai continued on to Shanghai (上海). Unfortunately, there aren't any pictures from Shanghai, but that's a story for Brett to tell... ;-)
Once Brett and Hongmai returned to Beijing, we were all pretty worn out from traveling so we took it easy for the rest of their visit. We had a relaxing stroll through the Temple of Heaven (天坛公园), and visited a tea house and ate Beijing roast duck ("Peking duck" in America).
It was a real treat to explore some of the best parts of Beijing and China with two of my best friends!